BBC2’s “Royal Cousins At War”, a 1st WW programme that’s Actually Worth Seeing.

Royal Cousins At War.

Roy­al Cousins At War.

This you’ll have noticed is the cen­te­nary of what was the Great and then became the 1st. World War. So by about, oh some time around next week, you’re going to be thor­ough­ly fed up with yet anoth­er pro­gramme mark­ing the anniversary.

On the plus side, unlike WWII, no-one’s going to be dress­ing up their jin­go­ism by pre­tend­ing that it was a black and white bat­tle between good and evil, and not just A N Oth­er exam­ple of good old fash­ioned, impe­ri­al­is­tic Empire-building.

In its stead, expect much fur­row­ing of the brow, wring­ing of the hands, and care­ful­ly pained declaim­ing of Oh the human­i­ty

BBC_First_World_War_centenary_logoVery unusu­al­ly, this was one of the very few wars that nobody involved was keen to pur­sue. What this pro­gramme did so fas­ci­nat­ing­ly, was to take one ele­ment and to show how dis­as­trous­ly its acci­dents played out.

Most peo­ple will be vague­ly aware of the story’s out­lines, with­out prob­a­bly know­ing very many of its details. Essen­tial­ly, it cen­tres around the three cousins who would grow up to become Wil­helm II, the last Emper­or of Ger­many, Tsar Nicholas II of Rus­sia, and George V of England.

As well as untan­gling the com­plex web of inter­mar­riages that the var­i­ous Euro­pean roy­al hous­es were con­struct­ed with, and the way that these pro­vid­ed the cur­rents that pow­ered the dif­fer­ent alle­giances and ten­sions that shaped the con­ti­nent, Roy­al Cousins at War pre­sent­ed a num­ber of mon­u­men­tal What Ifs.

What if Wil­helm II hadn’t had a breech birth, which left him with a with­ered left arm? And he hadn’t there­fore been shunned by his guilt-con­sumed moth­er, but had grown up as part of a lov­ing fam­i­ly, before devel­op­ing into a con­fi­dent, care-free and con­sid­er­ate monarch? Instead of rebelling against his lib­er­al par­ents to become an inse­cure, social­ly awk­ward, reac­tionary bully?

Or what if his grand­fa­ther, Wil­helm I had lived to be 80 instead of 90? And his father Friedrich III, had lived for ten years longer after he suc­ceed­ed him? Friedrich and his lib­er­al wife would have had 20 years to steer the nascent Ger­many towards the kind of con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy that they so admired in England.

Margaret McMillan's The War That Ended Peace.

Mar­garet MacMil­lan’s The War That End­ed Peace.

Indeed, his wife, Princess Vic­to­ria had been sent to Ger­many by her moth­er Queen Vic­to­ria, for pre­cise­ly that end. And Queen Vic­to­ria her­self was three parts Ger­man, and her adored hus­band entire­ly so. Eng­land would then have cement­ed its ties to its nat­ur­al ally Ger­many, and how dif­fer­ent the his­to­ry of the 20th cen­tu­ry might have become.

But he ruled alas for bare­ly three months.

This last What If was voiced by Mar­garet MacMil­lan, one of the many impec­ca­ble his­to­ri­ans who con­tributed to this won­der­ful­ly engag­ing pro­gramme. Her book The War That End­ed Peace was uni­ver­sal­ly praised through­out 2013 as a defin­i­tive exam­i­na­tion of the war, and sits on my Kin­dle undis­turbed, qui­et­ly mock­ing me.

Get that book, and if at all you can, watch this two part programme.

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